A date to remember — when I met Nora Ephron

By John Nathan, July 5, 2012
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Nora Ephron:  she could speak for men as convincingly as she could speak for women

Nora Ephron: she could speak for men as convincingly as she could speak for women

Last week, the radio woke me up with the news that Nora Ephron had died. As so often, the announcement of one person's death was the final headline in a series about war, mass killing and destruction. And, as so often, it was that single death that caused the most sadness.

While the newsreader relayed the medical facts - acute myeloid leukaemia followed by pneumonia - and the achievements - the romcom movies, including three Oscar nominations for When Harry Met Sally; the marriage to and divorce from Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein which became a novel (Heartburn) and another hit film (with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson) - my mind spooled back to 2004 and the freezing November day in New York when Ephron and I met for a coffee on the Upper East Side.

I happened to be in New York just before the stage version of When Harry Met Sally opened in London, and it seemed a good enough reason to meet one of my favourite writers. As vivid as the memory of the conversation, is how I felt afterwards. It was as if some of Ephron's fierce intelligence and throwaway Jewish wit had somehow rubbed off on me. And I remembered almost skipping down an icy Madison Avenue enlivened by the sheer energy of her company.

Tributes to Ephron continued to tumble out of the radio. One quoted Billy Crystal (who played Harry opposite Meg Ryan's Sally) as saying how lucky he was to have spoken Ephron's lines. Still only half awake, I was suddenly back in that coffee shop with Ephron sitting opposite me, dressed, as she often did, in black and telling me that the most famous line in When Harry Met Sally - "I'll have what she's having", delivered after Ryan's famous fake orgasm - was in fact thought up by Billy Crystal.

The famous fake orgasm scene in When Harry met Sally featured Ephron’s most famous line.  Or was it hers?

The famous fake orgasm scene in When Harry met Sally featured Ephron’s most famous line. Or was it hers?

Of course you would not expect Ephron to lie about it if asked. But I had not asked. And there was something typical about the revelation; something indicative of Ephron's charisma and absence of ego that led to her casually handing over credit for one of the most famous lines in the movie - of any movie. That said, she had plenty of gems she could call her own. It was for the same movie that Ephron invented the phrase "high maintenance" which has ever since been used as a shorthand to describe demanding women.

"Actually, that was [the film producer] John Calley," corrected Ephron. "He used to say exactly the same line that Harry uses in the film. 'There are two kinds of women, high maintenance and low maintenance'."

A little while before we met, Ephron had written a mock confessional in the New York Times about her time as an intern working for President Kennedy. The confession, written in the wake of new revelations about the president's sexual conquests, was that Ephron had not only not slept with Kennedy, he had not even made a pass at her. Kennedy did not sleep with Jewish woman, observed Ephron in the article. When I asked her what it was about Jewish women that Kennedy did not like, she said breezily: "Oh, that's not true. Actually he did sleep with a Jewish woman. But it's such a funny line, I left it in. It just goes to show that there comes a time when you stop being a journalist and will sacrifice anything for a joke."

I am awake now. The news has moved back to war but the conversation is coming back as clearly as if I had the tape recorder in my hand. For years, I had been a besotted admirer of the dialogue in every Ephron film, and of every Ephron book I had read. The prose and screenplays stand head, shoulders and hips above the sentimental tripe spawned by the rom-com genre. With Ephron, the com comes before the rom, even though films such as Sleepless in Seattle, which she both wrote and directed, and You've Got Mail (co-written with her younger sister Delia) are the romiest coms a romantic could hope for.

What she did with When Harry Met Sally can be compared to what Stephen Sondheim did with his musical Company. Each turned the subjects of romance and marriage into territory fit for the sharpest wit and the most cutting of insights. Come to think of it, Ephron's Harry and Sondheim's Bobby both view coupledom with cynicism. Although Harry, being a Hollywood invention, becomes tired of "the whole life-of-a-single-guy thing". But he still embodies the bachelor in most men when he admits that his first thought after having sex with a girl for the first time is: "How long do I have to hold her? Is 30 seconds enough?" This, says Harry, is the difference between women and men. It is one of the reasons men and women can never be friends; another being that the man always wants to sleep with the woman.

All the tributes have rightly made much of Ephron's feminist credentials. They credit her 1975 book Crazy Salad for making it possible for women to read and write about being a woman without the burden of feminist dogma. But, for me, what elevated Ephron's writing was that she could speak for men as convincingly as she could for women. I agreed with Harry. Hell, I could be Harry.

Ephron had an intimidating reputation and a wit that, as a Washington Post columnist put it "could kill you at 50 paces". So I had spent most of the day in an overheated hotel room surrounded by her books and cuttings and printouts of her work. On the way to the meeting I repeated newly learned facts about her screenwriting parents Harry and Phoebe, and how Phoebe gave her daughter the best advice a writer can get - "everything is copy".

And, when we met, Nora did speak as she wrote, in perfectly formed sentences, and deliciously timed one-liners. And yes, she had taken her mother's advice to heart - everything was copy. And no, she did not worry about the people in her life getting angry about what she wrote.

"What's a writer to do? Make it all up?" she asked And then came one of those lines that adorn her films and prose like scattered diamonds. "Of course there are writers who do make things up," she said. "I'm sure no one got mad at Tolkein."

    Last updated: 3:40pm, July 5 2012